Alpine Climbing Vs. Mountaineering

The cold digs deep. The ice permeates so far into the skin that it feels like burning. With a heavy crunch, the ice axe pierces the slope, sending speckles of ice stabbing numb cheeks. Against the icy steeps, the wind howls and gushes, sending the rope flapping back and forth against the metallic jangle of cams and draws. Frozen hands, tucked inside a heavy glove slip into a narrow crack, as the climber begins a delicate ballet, ascending the granite face. Squeezing the body into the chute of a chimney, a frozen waterfall of gleaming, cascading ice lines the cavern-like interior. The climber pulls out their ice tool, with its delicately curved shaft, and hammers into the frozen crystals. Jagged shards break away, shattering into seemingly infinite parts against the climber's domed helmet. Grabbing a silvery ice screw off their harness, the climber stabs the frozen floe, twisting its blades until it's firmly set against the ice. A draw is set and the rope fed through, pulling the carabiner's weight upwards. At the edge of the icy chute, the climber cautiously sets the serrated pick of the ice tool against the rock, and pulls onto the upper glacier with a heave. Only a thin, knife-like ridge separates the climber from the pinnacle, obscured by clouds, but only several-hundred feet above. Clutching the ice axe, only a balanced walk stands between the climber and the goal.

The summit is within reach.

Alpine Climbing Photo Courtesy of Martin Martinov

The mountains have always been a fundamental landscape of human exploration. For climbers, skiers, and trekkers, they are the ultimate proving ground for what people are capable of accomplishing. Modern mountaineering began in the Alps, with the Germans, Swiss, and French adventurers vying to summit the highest peaks of Western Europe. Over time it spread to the Andes, and then the Southern Alps of New Zealand. But after the British started exploring the Himalayas, the game changed overnight, and suddenly, the ultimate adventure, the ultimate experience was to stand on the tallest mountains on Earth. While these peaks were first considered too high and "impossible", when Annapurna was conquered by the French in 1950, climbers developed the techniques and the knowledge to scale the world's 14 mountains over 8,000-meters. One by one, the Himalayan peaks became possible, with Everest summitted in 1953, and the last peak, Shishapangma, conquered in 1964.

But then something interesting happened.

While the climbers of the great age of Himalayan exploration climbed with massive expeditions, involving hundreds of guides, porters, and well stocked camps, climbers like Reinhold Messner wanted to climb in a fast, pure, and light style, where fitness, speed, and technical skill played a role. This was called 'alpine style'. Alpine style involves fast ascents with minimal gear, where the goal is to climb as fast and efficiently as possible, without stocked, prepared camps, extra guides or porters, and rationing food and equipment, sometimes with two or more climbers to one sleeping bag. Messner shocked the world, when he and Peter Habeler climbed Gasherbrum I in 1975 without the use of supplemental oxygen, and Mt. Everest in 1978. By 1986, Messner had become the first person to climb the world's 8,000-meter peaks, all without the use of supplemental tanks.

Alpine Climbing vs. Mountaineering

But while Messner captured the imagination of the world, in Poland, another group of climbers dared a feat so extraordinary, that it was deemed suicidal.

The Polish had missed out on the first Himalayan ascents, as Eastern Europe didn't have the resources to climb in the world's great ranges. So when Leszek Cichy and Krzysztof Wielicki set out to climb Everest in 1980, they made plans to climb the entire peak alpine style — in winter.

Despite bitter, unimaginable cold, fierce storms, and Arctic-like blasts, Cichy and Wielicki stood on Everest's summit, and opened the door for a generation of Polish climbers, dubbed the Ice Warriors. From 1980 to 1988, the Poles smashed all expectations by conquering seven 8,000-meter peaks between the months of December and February. When the legendary alpinists Jerzy Kukuczka and Wanda Rutkiewicz tragically passed away in 1988 and 1992, no 8,000-meter peak was climbed in winter until 2005.

While the last Himalayan giant has fallen, modern alpinism and mountaineering is a game of pushing the envelope one step further. Modern technique, big wall climbing, and siege techniques borrowed from rock climbers and Yosemite pioneers have allowed a new generation of alpinists to conquer monumental vertical walls that nobody would have dared to attempt. With the advent of aid and free climbing, the North Face of the Eiger in Switzerland was boldly scaled in 1938, and as the walls of Half Dome and El Capitan became conquerable, these techniques migrated to the world's sheer alpine faces. Soon, climbers were scaling incredible faces in Alaska and Patagonia, led by pioneers such as Yvon Chouinard and Fred Beckey.

Suddenly, it didn't matter what the tallest point was. Alpinists were looking to climb in creative and innovative styles, which meant taking on technically difficult faces of ice and rock. While mountaineers were specializing in ascents on snow and glaciers, the alpinists were ascending monolithic vertical faces.

Mountaineering Photo Courtesy of McKay Savage

The fundamental difference between mountaineering and alpinism is the difference in the technical skills required. Mountaineering involves ascen
posted by
Michael Restivo
Blogger at Mike Off the Map
Michael is a climber and writer from Seattle, Washington. He has traveled extensively worldwide, working in Italy and Nepal. When he's not out climbing, looking for snow, or planning his next trip, Michael works in a ski shop and shares his adventures through his blog, Mike Off The Map. Team Sierra bloggers receive promotional consideration from Sierra Trading Post.
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